It’s been about 2 weeks since I’ve moved to France. So what have I learned?
1. They are just as ignorant as everyone else.
While I was setting up my bank account (which they make extremely difficult for Americans. It’s irritating, but I guess the United States doesn’t exactly make it easy for everyone else), the lady working there was helping another teaching assistant, who was from South Africa. She just happens to be caucasian, which a lot of people from South Africa actually are. The lady took one look at her passport and one look at her and said, “How come you’re from Africa if you’re white like me?” Yep. It was like that scene from Mean Girls. “Karen, you just can’t ask people why they’re white.”
When another assistant said she was from Argentina, a different French woman asked where that was. When she said South America, the lady scoffed and said “Sorry, the Americas are all the same to me.” It’s two different continents, lady. That’s like saying Europe and Africa are the same. If I said that, they’d just think “oh, stupid American.” Granted, yeah, I can’t name off every country in Europe, but I can get pretty close. I’m going to have to teach my students some geography.
And just yesterday I had a little boy, barely over the age of ten, tell me proudly that he was wearing an American pin on his shirt. He unzipped his jacket to instead reveal the Confederate flag. An older man, listening to our conversation, watched me falter and began to whistle an army march as if trying to jog my memory. That’s not an American flag, sir. But it’s from Texas, right? Ughhhhh . . .
2. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t friendly.
People keep talking to me, no matter where I go. It’s not bad, it’s just unexpected. The French are rude and mean. They don’t like Americans. They don’t like it when you can’t speak French.
At a ticket counter in Marseille, I had a lady change to English after my bad attempt at pronouncing Gare Saint-Charles. At that train station, I had 5 different people come up to me and ask me questions. I was exhausted, I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours, and the l last thing I wanted was people coming up to me and speaking rapid, low French. I was even reading an book in English. That didn’t matter.
On the train, I met this nice girl who helped me unload my suitcase that, by that time, felt like it was full of bricks. She even told me to watch out because my shoe was untied.
I get stopped often enough that I must look like I know what I’m doing. That’s a nice thought, because sometimes I have no idea what’s going on.
3. No one really cares what state you are from, unless it’s Texas.
I don’t usually say I’m from Texas until anyone asks; some people don’t care that the United States has actual states. That is, if they even know any. However, Texas is some mythological place, like Mount Olympus or Narnia. I say I’m from Texas and eyes instantly light up. “That’s so cool,” they’ll say. I’m waiting for the “do you ride horses” and “where are the cowboys” questions. They’ll come up, I know it.
(*I started teaching yesterday and, yes, they did come up. 3 different times.)
4. The way they live life is just . . . easier.
There’s always people on the beach, no matter what day, no matter what time. Like, does anyone work around here? I’ll look out my window and see people paddle boarding, boating, swimming, walking, riding bikes, you name it. Stores aren’t open until all hours of the night. Everyone here is extremely active and, with this kind of 70 degree weather, it’s hard not to be.
5. The French Rivera is just as beautiful as you think it would be.
The Mediterranean. Sprawling mountains. Jutting cliffs. Old yellow houses with wooden shutters and green courtyards with wooden gazebos dripping with ivy. Most of the private homes and apartments here have wrought-iron gates that close off their driveway from the street. Cats roam in the back alleys. Palm trees line the boardwalk and colorful boats paint the harbor like a rainbow. At night, when the sea is black, the town lights twinkle in sloping valleys.
6. No matter where you go, Western culture is always there.
I found a Tex-Mex section at the grocery store. Even now, while I’m writing this, I’m listening to the radio and Twenty-One Pilots is playing. It’s a French station; the commercials are in French and so are the majority of the songs. But still, if you are observant, you don’t have to go very far to hear English again. Granted, the English learned over here is British English. I stick out with the drawled diphthongs. Thank goodness I don’t actually say y’all.
And then there’s the election. Usually, the conversation goes like this:
“Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“An American here, ha! (They usually laugh or chuckle after that.) Who are you going to vote for, Trump or Clinton?”
No subtly here. They go straight for it.
7. No one moves over for ambulances.
I mean, it’s like they don’t exist. But they do exist and I see them way too often for my taste. The streets are small, most of them one way, so I guess if anyone did care they couldn’t really do anything about it. I can walk faster through traffic than those ambulances move sometimes. Not a happy thought. But don’t even get me started on traffic laws. What are traffic laws here? And then there are the motorcyclists, who seem to abide by no laws.
Turns out, you don’t need a permit or anything to drive a motorbike around here. That explains a lot.
8. French cheese is the best kind of cheese.
Like, cheese is its own food group. And rightfully so.
9. Wine is cheaper than water.
A large bottle of water can run up to 7 to 9 euros. A decent bottle of wine is around 2/4 euros. Two months from now someone will ask me if I would like water and I’ll say, “Water? What is water?”
10. They are super stylish.
I need to step up my fashion game here. My students are always dressed nicely. Even when they are casual, it’s with a matching track suit and designer sneakers. Let it be the kids, the teachers, or the people you pass on the street, everyone is dressed like they’re going out for a causal dinner back in the States no matter what time it is.
11. When the French talk about coffee, they mean business.
At first I was surprised by how small the coffee portions were. But the smaller the cup, the stronger the coffee. And it’s a staple. The staff room has a small vending machine that sells everything from espresso to hot chocolate to tea. And if you don’t have time to drink coffee, you make time to drink coffee. There’s even a mock restaurant that has a cappuccino machine.
12. French food is alright, but their baked goods are to die for.
My first time out at a authentic French restaurant, I had a salade de la mer, a seafood salad, which was pretty much what it said (I don’t know exactly what I had been expecting) with lettuce, raw tuna, raw scallops, raw squid, raw octopus, muscles, and one cooked prawn covered in some grey, nondescript dressing that didn’t taste bad but didn’t taste that great either. And then for my main plate I ordered a tuna steak, which is just grilled tuna in the shape of a steak. The waiter must have thought I absolutely loved seafood when, in reality, it was the one entree I could say with courage on the menu.
But then we had pie for dessert and oh, my, goodness. Desserts, breakfast pastries, and bread are all on an entirely different, divine level. There is no comparison to freshly baked French bread. And then they have bread with chocolate. Bread with freakin’ chocolate. And then there’s the quiche. And the éclairs. And the croissants.
It’s been almost 3 days since I’ve bought a baguette and I feel as if something is already missing from my life.
It’s a good thing I have to walk everywhere or I don’t know what I’d do.
13. Not everyone smokes, but it sure smells like it.
I stepped out of the airport into the fresh French air for the first time only to smell . . . cigarette smoke. Discarded cigarette butts and smushed boxes take up at least two-thirds of the litter here. You can find out who smokes quickly thanks to the standard “la bise” greeting, which (depending on the region) is a kiss on each cheek. (Which isn’t really a kiss – you just kind of touch faces . .. Have to get used to that again.) So, if you’re asthmatic, don’t forget that inhaler to fend off the second hand smoke or the views . . . whichever takes your breath away first.